Over the last month, I’ve received several inquiries about unusual air tickets. Typical submissions:
“I’m going to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. I know when I want to leave home, but my return date will be uncertain. How do I buy a ticket for the best price?”
“I want to buy, as a gift, a ticket from London to Brisbane but leave the whole thing open so the recipient can choose the travel dates.”
“We’ll be taking a one-way cruise from Florida, and the one-way tickets from Europe to our region are more than $1,500 each while the round-trips are closer to $700. I am seriously considering buying throw-away round-trip tickets when we return from Europe next year, using only the front half of a Europe-US-Europe round-trip. Any risks in this strategy?”
These and other similar inquiries raise the issue of the several types of airline tickets that are either dead—once available, but no longer—or in violation of airline policies. Here’s a run-down on several of the most frequently discussed.
Open tickets, paid for but with either a return or even both flights on a round-trip not yet reserved, are almost extinct. When airfares were less complex, and didn’t change as often, you could easily buy such open tickets—especially open returns—with no penalty for the subsequent firm reservations. No more: Now, I know of only two types of open ticket:
- On round-the-world tickets issued by the three main airline alliances, you must book the first intercontinental leg (and connections leading to that leg) in advance, and you have to specify the full routing, but you can leave all of the rest of the itinerary open, to be filled in along the way. However, you must pay to change the routing.
- On most lines, you can change dates on reservations for a frequent flyer award trip without any fee, but only until the trip is ticketed. Once ticketed, however, you may have to pay a fee to change dates.
If you want to give someone a ticketed trip, with unknown dates, all you can do is guess on the trip dates. If the guess is wrong, you can pay (or have the recipient pay) the change fees, plus whatever the difference in fares may be at the time you change. Alternatively, you can give a frequent flyer award, but not ticket it immediately, letting the recipient sweat out the availability of seats. Or you can just promise to buy a ticket when the recipient finally does decide.
If you’re unsure of just your return date, you can either book a best-guess round-trip and pay the exchange fee if you have to change your return flight, or fly with airlines such as JetBlue and Southwest that offer their lowest fares on a one-way basis. Either way, however, you’ll have to pay for your return at the going fare at the time you decide to return, which may be a good bit higher than when you bought your first ticket.
Of course, you could buy fully refundable, flexible tickets—but those are much more expensive than the round-trip excursions and advance-purchase one-way tickets most travelers use.
Time was, several airlines offered last-minute standby tickets as their lowest fares. That system reached its peak with Sir Freddie Laker’s Skytrain operation between the US and the UK, which was quickly copied by British Airways, Pan Am, and TWA. But when Laker’s airline died in 1982, cheap standby pretty much died with it. For now, the only cheap standby operation I know is AirTran U, a program for anyone ages 18 through 22.
You can still find some last minute airfare bargains, listed on most lines’ websites and by the large online travel agencies such as Expedia. But this type of ticket does not equate to standby: You still have to reserve a seat and ticket before you get to an airport. If you just show up at an airport ticket counter, you’ll generally pay top dollar.
Of course, if you’re ticketed, you can standby at an airport for upgrades, better set assignments, and such. On most lines, you can also standby for earlier flights on the day you were originally ticketed to fly, but you may have to pay a fee.
Throw-Away Return—Against Policy
Every big line’s contract of carriage I’ve ever read specifies that passenger is obligated to take the flights as ticketed—all the flights, and in the order specified. Thus, throwing away the return portion of a round-trip ticket constitutes a violation of airline policies.
Although the airline policies are extremely rigid, I’ve never heard of any actual actions taken by airlines against occasional use of throw-away tickets. However, airlines have the capability to identify such cases, and some lines have taken action against travel agents who have frequently issued “too many” tickets used in that way.
In answer to the reader, my response, then, is, “There is theoretically a risk, but it’s so small as to be negligible. In your shoes, I’d go for it.”
Hidden City—The One-Way Variation
Hidden city, the comparable practice of booking a connecting itinerary and not taking the second flight, also violates airline policy. And it’s often employed, with impunity, with travel agents running a greater risk than individual travelers.
Keep In mind, however, that hidden city works only on one-way tickets. If you fail to make a connection on the going portion of a round-trip ticket, the airline almost always cancels the remainder of the ticket, including specifically the entire return portion, leaving you to buy an expensive one-way ticket back home.
Back-to-Back Tickets—Twice the Violation
Back-to-back ticketing is yet another throw-away variation, but with a twist. In back-to-back, you buy two round-trip tickets—one from your home to your destination, another from your destination back home—and use the going portion of both tickets to make a round-trip that avoids the Saturday night stay required by some of the cheapest round-trip tickets. In effect, it’s just a combination of two throw-away tickets, with the same contract violations.
Back-to-back adds another gimmick, however: You could schedule the two tickets so that you could actually take two separate round-trips, neither requiring a Saturday night stay, as long as both trips fall within the total validity limit of the tickets.
That way, you’re nominally complying with the contractual rules on both tickets. The airlines, however, generally insist that you’re still in violation, because your intent was to circumvent the ticketing rules. As far as I know, nobody has ever been prosecuted for this violation, although it could happen. Most travel mavens suggest that if you decide to do a two-trip back-to-back, you should get tickets on two different airlines, so that neither line can track your “violation.”
Low-Cost Airlines to the Rescue
Fortunately, growing numbers of low-fare lines either sell their lowest-priced tickets on a one-way basis or don’t require a Saturday night stay. Moreover, the legacy lines often match their low-fare competitors. These developments greatly ease the once dominant tyranny of Saturday night stay. And that, in turn, greatly reduces the need to use throw-away and back-to-back tickets.
(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)